Working artists fascinate me: Eavesdropper Interview with Kiah Denson.

I’ve been on this career advice-giving kick lately, dispensing wisdom to any disgruntled worker who will listen.  I’m not sure where it’s coming from, since I suspect I may be unqualified to give such advice.  
But when you listen to my sage counsel, you will inevitably walk away thinking: “That girl is definitely unqualified to give such advice.”
Here’s a good example.  My latest gem has been to tell people not to do what they love for a living.  The logic being: If you turn the thing you love into work, it’ll stop being magical, and you’ll end up resenting it.  That’s what happened to me with freelance writing a while back, so naturally, I assume it is this way for all people.
Only, it isn’t.
Take my husband, for example.  He just built a freaking music studio in our backyard, to enable him to do what he loves as a profession: Teaching children how to play rock music.  He’s pretty ecstatic about it.
I’m especially intrigued by young people, really young people — recent graduates I mean, all idealistic and motivated and uncynical — who manage to support themselves doing what they love.  Particularly when what they love isn’t, say … accounting, but rather, something artistic.
Such is the case with Austin’s Kiah Denson, whom I met last summer.


Kiah paints large-scale art for children’s rooms, which immediately endeared her to me.  (And if you click on that link, you’ll appreciate that Kiah doesn’t shield children from the truth of the Jurassic period.  Her dinosaurs look like DINOSAURS, not like Barney.) 

She also creates these wall-length, nature-inspired murals with detail that will blow your mind; she faux finishes, she paints abstract art.  But it’s Kiah’s spare, lovely portraits that I like the best.  They remind me of those old sewing pattern packages, from McCall’s and Simplicity, with tidy, well-dressed women from the 1940s gracing the front.  
Only Kiah’s women are more sensual.

Kiah’s first studio show happens this weekend on Saturday evening, for the East Austin Studio Tour Preview Party.  It will be held at Bay6 Gallery and Studios (5305 Bolm Road), and to celebrate this big opening for such a young talent, I asked Kiah to sit down to a little Eavesdropper Interview.  Particularly since she confounds my current career advice, and is a perfect example of why you should do exactly what you love for a living.

Ah!  I can’t get enough of those women portraits!  Isn’t there something glamorous and Gatsby about them?  Can’t you hear the jazz quartet on the lawn?  I can. 
Ok, ok — reining it in, let’s do this interview.  Welcome, Kiah!
1.  You are a visual artist who paints, draws, creates fantastic murals.  How did you get on this path?   When did you know you wanted to do this not just for a hobby, but a living?
To be honest, I don’t think art was ever really a hobby for me, except maybe occasionally when I was a kid. I’ve had art as a class in school my whole life and always treated it like any other subject — work hard, do well, make a good grade.  I was blessed with the most amazing art teacher from kindergarten through eighth grade. We were doing things that some people never get to try.  In first grade we carved animals out of soap, and in seventh grade we made stained glass. We were probably learning three-point perspective drawing when other kids were making pasta and pipe-cleaner ornaments.  Being saturated with that type of creativity for so many years is probably the biggest reason why I do what I do.

I got my bachelor’s degree in Studio Art because it was the only thing I really felt strongly about, not because I was actually planning to make a living as an artist. However, enough positive things have been laid out in front of me since then, so I’m determined to keep it up. Kind of like what Paulo Coelho talks about in The Alchemist – you have to follow the omens because when you really want something, the universe will help you achieve it.
2. Do you come from an artistic family? 

There are definitely some creative people in my family. My mom is very musically inclined; she sings in a choir and plays percussion and piano. My dad is the ultimate handyman; he can paint and draw but he just uses it for building and fixing things. So I grew up being very hands-on with work and play, which helped encourage the art-making.
3. Describe your studio to us.
Oh I looove my studio!

I just moved my home studio to a space on the east side (Bay6 Gallery and Studios) that I had been eyeing for some time. Really wonderful local artists have worked in the space before me, and I think there’s something to be said for “good juju.”  Working from my home studio for so long doing commissions and decorative painting projects, I’d really hit a stagnant point in productivity and creativity when it came to my own art.  Having a special place now to go to create, without distractions (no internet/pets/chores/etc), has really made a difference.
I have one of the four studios in our complex, and I adore the other artists — I feel like I have 3 new mentors now. We get along so well and our artistic styles really compliment one another. We have a shared gallery space for shows, and the walls are high and white. There’s no AC, but its so open and airy and we have lots of industrial fans. I just love it.
4. I was just reading this article in Mental Floss about quirky ways artists summon the muse — Beethoven apparently kept rotten apples in his desk, because the smell inspired him. So do you ever get the artist’s equivalent of “writer’s block?” If so, what do you do to cure it? 
Hmmm I’ve got some banana peels in my studio trash can… maybe I’ll leave them there for a while and see what happens?  Lately, I haven’t had too many blocks because I’ve been on a creative high being in my new studio; however, I know that can’t last forever.  Since I paint and draw with water-based mediums (ink and acrylic) on both paper and canvas, I can pretty easily switch gears if I need a change.  I usually go into my studio with some idea of where I want to start, and with a plan B if I need to switch it up.
I have a thing for the 2D side of fashion: illustration, couture print ads, vintage Vogue photography and drawing…

So if I need a spark, I’ll flip through books, magazines, blogs and Google to freshen up.  Even if I’m planning on doing an unrelated abstract piece, I still get inspired by the colors and compositions. Sometimes, though, all I really need is a break.
5. Favorite cartoon show as a kid?
So many! I loved all the ones with animals, like Looney/Tiny Toons, Heathcliff, Talespin and definitely Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I went through a Spongebob phase as a teenager when my parents finally got satellite TV…
6. Favorite mid-day snack? 
Triscuits or pita chips with spicy hummus and any kind of cheese. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without cheese.
7. What’s the secret to living a creative life, Kiah?
There’s a secret!? If you figure it out, let me know! I’m still learning, but so far I’ve found that being flexible is key — there are so many varying degrees of ups and downs and changes, so going into it with a specific or absolute mindset probably isn’t going to be too helpful.  But that’s life, isn’t it?
Also, setting a schedule for studio time and treating it like a “real job” — because it absolutely is — has been really important for me. Ultimately though, having support from friends and family is number one. I think it is important to be surrounded by positive voices of people who encourage, challenge and remind me of why I should be doing this; a little affirmation and understanding go a long way.
thank you for hanging out on austin eavesdropper, kiah!
best of luck with your show.